Sustainable ? Aesthetic ?

– Posted in: Garden Photography

“The Hermit’s Garden” Sustainable ? Aesthetic?

“I have a nearly impossible job.  I am a garden photographer…. “

So begins my article in the current Pacific Horticulture “Finding a Sustainable Aesthetic …”; and so begins my lecture circuit this year with the subtitle – “… What is ‘Good’ Garden Photography” as I promote my book  “The American Meadow Garden”.  I don’t pretend to define a sustainable aesthetic but I know my job as a garden photographer is taking on increasing relevance in the conversation.

The fanciful “Hermits Garden” created at The Late Show Gardens by Kate and Ben Fry prods us to consider the role of the gardener and our own assumptions about sustainability.  The questions, Sustainable for who?, Sustainable where ? become important, even vital consideration.

If we are to find a sustainable aesthetic, the media will need to show it.  The photographs that depict it need to be regionally appropriate and authentic.  They also need to look good, which is why my job is so hard.  It is not too hard to find beautiful gardens, nor is it beyond the realm of a professional photo shoot to create a beautiful garden, but how far can I (the media) stretch the truth to communicate an idea ?

This lovely deck drenched in afternoon sun under a canopy of native oaks amid lush, ornamental drought tolerant shrubs might seem like a perfect California, regionally appropriate garden.  It might be. I don’t know for sure because all the shrubs are lying sideways in 5 gallon pots facing the camera.

While it might be a model for long term success, it was sustained for 2 hours.  And today, I would not include such a photo in any of my books.  I want books to be believable, I want my photos to be paired up with authentic information, I want gardeners to have long term success based on real gardens.  I want to be trusted.

As a garden photographer in California, I began to realize about 10 years ago how few authentic and sustainable gardens we Western gardeners saw in the national media.  It was my own fault as much as any Eastern writer or publisher.   We, in the media, and me as a photographer needed to change the aesthetic of what Western gardeners saw in a garden photograph.

California sustainable gardenWhen Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates was conceived I set about to help.  The photograph of this second deck under a canopy of oaks was photographed for that book.  It is completely real, mature, and full of plants that if the gardener walked away would survive on their own.  Without the gardener to sustain it, this garden would not be so pleasing to look at and certain plants would inevitably decline; but I have no pangs of guilt claiming that this is a realistic example of a good garden.

Since that book I have done “Hardy Succulents” and now “The American Meadow Garden”.  I am taking even more seriously my obligation to fellow gardeners to illustrate books with ‘good’ photographs.  This posting is really a pep talk for me.   I will be attending the Eco-Farm Conference this week and will be among those who have been committed to sustainable practices for 30 years.

If asked, I want to contribute to the conversation.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Stevie January 30, 2010, 10:50 am

I appreciate that you don’t want to stage gardens for photographs! It’s very hard to make a garden perfect…. and I believe the beauty lies in the imperfections.

Perfection is not really a goal of a garden anyway. If achieved, the gardener would not be needed. – Saxon

allan becker- garden guru January 30, 2010, 1:22 pm

On January 27, 2010, I posted a review of “The American Meadow Garden” to my blog site. Your photographs “make” the book. They are stunning.

Those of us who have tried to take long shots of gardens understand how difficult it is to create photographs of nature that reflect what our brain records. That you can accomplish that admirably is impressive, even of it means sometimes tweaking nature .

Thanks Allan ! I sure enjoy compliments but it is an odd concern of mine that if the photos “make” the book some folks will not take the content as seriously. I talked with author/photographer Lisa Hamilton about this and she purposefully did not want any photos in her fine new book “Deeply Rooted”.

donna January 30, 2010, 1:42 pm

I’m pretty tired of picture-perfect gardens, or picture-perfect anything these days, for that matter. Give me a nice wabi sabi garden that looks lived in and comfortable and easy to maintain any day.

— then getting close to sustainable I do believe — Saxon

Christi C. January 30, 2010, 2:29 pm

Thanks for such a thoughtful post ~

Having done a great deal of garden photography myself in the past, this post hit very close to home. BRAVO to you, I say, for *photographing it forward*! And I so appreciate your honesty in regards to confessing about the photo where the 5-gal. pots are tipped towards the camera. Can definitely relate to those sorts of maneuvers and it makes me wonder – if I went back over all my old stuff, how many of those could I pull out…?

You have given me a lot to think about…

It is something all consumers of photographs need to think about, and what I have been saying here for years now – The Camera Always Lies. Even when we are not trying to the photographer has a bias. – Saxon

Meredith January 30, 2010, 5:08 pm

I enjoyed this post very much. Thank you for your honesty; I could feel it was heartfelt. You are right that we are going to have to change some of our current aesthetic as we transition to a sustainable way of life.

I hope and believe that it will happen naturally as more and more of us get involved and add our two cents. As a professional photographer, your two cents might end up speaking very loudly indeed, which is why I’m so pleased to read you won’t be photographing faked landscapes anymore.

Meredith – I haven’t photographed any faked landscapes for many years, at least not in the obvious sense. But to some, the Hermit perhaps, any garden is faked – and not really a landscape. – Saxon

Gayle Madwin January 30, 2010, 6:08 pm

Those two photographs are strikingly similar, but what is also striking to me is that the real one is prettier. In the fake one, the shrubs with red foliage seem visually extraneous; they don’t blend with the surrounding landscape at all. They’re pretty, but they’re pretty like a big red bow glued on top of the photo, not like part of the photo itself. By contrast, in the photo of a real garden, all the plants blend harmoniously, and none seems separate from the others.

Gayle – I agree with you whole heartedly that the real garden is truly harmonious. There is a natural beauty to gardens that age well as the plants get comfortable with each other. – Saxon

jodi (bloomingwriter) January 30, 2010, 7:22 pm

This was an enlightening post for me, Saxon, because while I knew gardens are often ‘groomed’ for photo shoots, I didn’t realize some were primped and propped to the extent you show in that first deck photo. Who wants a ‘perfect’ garden, for real or in articles/books? They tend to discourage and intimidate many a budding gardener who is limited by time, energy, dollars, climate, etc.
I like your concerns about sustainability, and look forward to seeing what you bring to the conversation next.

Jodi – It is rare to prop a garden as much as that first one, mainly because it is expensive to do so. Covers of some splashy nursery catalogues are built sometimes but for me, I rarely do more than a raking and deadheading. Of course I am careful about what gardens I visit to begin with. I don’t visit too many low maintenance gardens. After all, no garden is sustainable without a gardener. – Saxon

Christine January 31, 2010, 10:44 am

My mind is a little blown! I had no idea many gardens were staged beyond making sure there weren’t dead leaves in the foreground. It reminds me of fashion magazines with airbrushed models. Many women feel that those models are the standard, much like I’ve felt that these lush, magazine gardens are what I’m trying to attain.
I’m really glad you’re trying to show true gardens, Saxon but I can see the difficulty in it, for sure!

Christine – I did not mean to imply “many” gardens were staged. That would be a tremendous disservice to the many great gardens that do get photographed for publication. It is not uncommon for some glossy magazine shoots to have a stylist or art director on location who might bring in extra pots of flowering plants to pop in, and sometimes it is easy to pick out those that are over the top. Such gardens can be fun to look at but at the heart of my point in all this is to urge each gardener to create their own aesthetic. – Saxon

Pam/Digging January 31, 2010, 1:06 pm

I too appreciate your honesty about that top photo, but knowing the extent to which magazine gardens may be fakes is certainly uninspiring. Call me naive, but I never knew there was that much “fluffing” going on. I like your current approach and wish you success with it.

Geez – Everyone is commenting as if a lot of garden shoots are staged. It is really rare to go to the extent of that first photo. I was commissioned by an ad agency to create a single photo for the cover of a big water agency’s brochure. Few publications have the budget to set up such a shoot. – Saxon

Living wall artist February 1, 2010, 3:31 pm

While it’s great to have pictures of designer gardens, just looking out on the beauty of a natural garden without the artificial fluff can’t be beat. Taking a picture of a natural garden with naturally good lighting is the best. Well done.

Spoken like a gardener. Thanks for the comments – Saxon

bloominrs February 2, 2010, 7:18 am

I found the Hermit’s Garden very compelling. I could imagine as the plants grew it would become a nice hideaway. I also can imagine though that this type of garden would scare the neighbors.

You make such good points that sustainable does not mean no maintenance and that each gardener should find their own aesthetic. I think a start is to find plants that like our own climate and soil.

I enjoyed the your photos of the Late Garden tour especially the smashed gas can (looked like red rock) and “The Oak and the Olive”.

I couldn’t figure out the purpose of the ice sculpture melting into a bog around the cactus. Was that supposed to imply an extreme of unsustainable?

I am not sure any of the gardens have a purpose other than to make you think. My take on the ice block garden, “The Grow Melt Project” was a reminder how quickly the ice caps are melting. We best do something about it or all we will have is cactus gardens.

Glad you enjoyed the Late Show Gardens tour. – Saxon

andrea February 3, 2010, 12:31 am

I am new here but i thank serendipity for finding this. I am not a professional photographer but a horticulturist who is in IP management, but love to take photos of gardens, flowers, nature . I read all the comments here, certainly i will learn a lot. I would love to read your book.

Andrea – sererdipity works in mysterious ways. welcome. glad you want to read my book, but umm, which one ? I have quite a few I am proud of … check out our GGW bookstore link. Or order from me for autographs… – Saxon

bloominrs February 3, 2010, 4:13 pm

Thank you Saxon. Your explanation clears it up. I was thinking those must be unhappy cacti in standing water there.

I very much enjoyed Hardy Succulents and yours and Nan’s grass book. I would gush but don’t want to sound like a rabid fan. I do enjoy this blog though. I will definitely look for the Meadow garden book at the bookstore.

None of us here at GGW mind if you gush over our books. I absolutely want you to support your local bookstore and ask them to stock quality garden books. But if you want to pay a little bit extra fror shipping and an autograph this is the link to my site:
thanks for the comment – Saxon

Dirty Girl Gardening February 6, 2010, 1:33 am

My hermit garden consists of me around all my plants, with a glass of champagne, and great book and my cell phone off.

– I hope you hang the empty bottles from a tree. – Saxon

commonweeder February 8, 2010, 8:24 am

As someone who is just learning about taking photographs (with my little point and shoot) I am fascinated by the ways professional photographers work, from finding a scene, to ‘grooming’ or more, to the actual camera mechanics. It has made me think about light! One of the nice things about so many garden blogs is the photos of real gardens with all their problems, quirks and beauties.

Debra Lee Baldwin February 9, 2010, 5:17 pm

Hi, Saxon — I love the trees and decks of the two photos, and want nothing more, but then I’m a sucker for gorgeous light.
Incidentally, as a garden journalist and scout for magazines and newspapers, I’ve been on shoots with more than a dozen professional photographers. It was my experience that newspaper photographers never fluff anything—although they might come back if the light isn’t right.
Magazine photographers are different; they know that the editors want an idealized version of reality, and may not buy the photo if it isn’t Edenic.
I once helped a magazine photographer use green wire to tie roses to a climbing bush that was past peak by the time she got there. The delay between my scouting shot and the photographer’s arrival was about a week, so it wasn’t that we were faking anything, but rather aiming for a perfect moment in time.
I’m intrigued by the direction garden photography seems to be going, and appreciate your well thought out perspective on it.

Newspaper photogs don’t fluff because they have no time and few have the experience to know how to style a garden. Not all magazines actually want the gussied up photos and I much prefer to work with those who want the authentic image – Saxon

Julia February 13, 2010, 9:31 am

After visiting California upon returning to New England I was struck by how comparatively green it was here. California, to me, was a collage of browns, tans, and beiges, and I loved that it was so different from New England.

I would like to see our landscapes and gardens reflect the true natural conditions of the region in which we live. That sense of vibrant health and balance we find in a landscape that fits in to its surroundings is hard to describe but I think you are helping this aesthetic re-definition with your photography.

Hopefully necessity will now dictate how we design and maintain gardens resulting in truly sustainable, truly beautiful landscapes. The American obsession with the emerald green golf course quality lawn will fade away. It is all about re-educating our clients, one by one, group by group about what makes a landscape truly satisfyingly beautiful!

thanks, Julia Houriet

Every time I fly East in the summer I feel like I am flying into the tropics – it is so green compared to California summers. But then, this time of year California is becoming green from winter rains and the East is a stark and barren. Our regions are so very different and there can be no one aesthetic. Thanks for your comments – Saxon

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